“What will you have — tea or coffee?”
This is the standard question I am asked whenever I visit anyone’s home. Evidently, coffee (when I say coffee, I am referring to all caffeinated beverages) is more than a simple beverage — it is a social phenomenon that connects people.
When I started meditating, like many other aspiring yogis, the idea of giving up my morning cup of Joe was petrifying. I could go without food for a day but skipping caffeine? Not a chance.
Ever since then, I have met people who belong to both groups – those who believe caffeine is the antipode of all that yoga stands for and others who believe yoga practice can peacefully coexist with caffeine.
When I joined Ananda Sangha (a global spiritual movement of truth seekers), as an ex-coffee lover, I was delighted to find many who shared my plight. So, I continued indulging in myriad blends of teas and coffees without feeling guilty.
At some point, I started to question if those innocent cups of coffee were actually causing me more harm than good. I also was not entirely comfortable with being so dependent on an external substance for an energy boost.
A few Google searches revealed a plethora of conflicting arguments for and against caffeine, leaving me more confused than before. Thus, I began a series of personal experiments to answer this question for myself. The results for me were insightful and eye-opening.
The Invisible Addiction
In America alone, 517 million cups of coffee are consumed per day. Whether for meals, a date, or meetings at work, coffee is a part of every occasion – but have you ever thought about what that seemingly harmless cup of coffee is doing to you?
Many coffee drinkers may not be aware of the adverse side effects caffeine has on their systems. There are good reasons why — if people suddenly stopped drinking coffee, it would negatively impact many food and beverage companies overnight. Coffee companies and related businesses have done a good job of keeping the negative side effects of caffeine obscured from people’s awareness.
At the end of the day, what many call the “nectar of the gods” is only a drug. I have given up (quit) caffeine a number of times. Often, after a few months, I return to it thinking that certainly one little cup a day could not do any harm.
I conveniently forget that caffeine is a drug and one can build a tolerance to it the more one consumes. This means today a cup of coffee might be enough to get you going in the morning. Tomorrow you might need two, and a month later you might need a pot just to get out of bed.
I eventually reached a point in my life where I found it difficult to go through the day without a cup. I did not like having to depend on this artificial energy source at all. So, I decided to quit…again!
As you may know, quitting coffee is very hard at first, mostly because of the withdrawal effects. Once those subsided, I found that my life changed rather drastically. Here are a few significant changes in my daily life that I noticed.
A Constant Stream of Energy
You would think I would have less energy after quitting caffeine but it has been actually the reverse. Let’s understand this in more detail.
First of all, caffeine does not give you energy, it merely masks your tiredness and fatigue. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors in the brain that makes you feel sleepy. Blocking adenosine ignites the central nervous system and releases fight-or-flight hormones, like adrenaline. it also increases your dopamine levels as a nervous system stimulant, which improves your mood for a while.
Nevertheless, as soon as the effects of caffeine wear off, you experience what coffee drinkers call a “caffeine crash.” At that moment, you may rush to get another cup of coffee to overcome the crash, and … the cycle continues.
When you quit caffeine, you may find that all your tiredness comes to the fore, at least initially. This is the start of the dreaded withdrawal phase. You will almost certainly end up sleeping more (and better) to flush the adenosine out of your brain. Once you are through that phase you may find that you experience a steady flow of energy throughout the day.
Regular coffee drinkers usually have trouble sleeping, or at least do not get the best quality of sleep. As a result, they often wake up tired and reach for another cup of Joe. It is a vicious cycle indeed.
Once you put an end to this cycle, you will wake up feeling much more refreshed. I started to sleep like a baby and also woke up earlier without the aid of an alarm clock after a day or two without caffeine.
Lower Anxiety and Increased Calmness
Many studies have talked about the anxiety-inducing effects of caffeine. In some cases, normal, healthy people suffered from panic attacks just after consuming 500 mg of caffeine (about 5 cups of coffee).
Coffee drinkers often have a background hum of anxiety that never stops — this is called caffeinism. In fact, in 1978, researchers couldn’t differentiate between a person suffering from chronic anxiety and one who was just having too much caffeine.
For me, life runs at 1.5x or 2x speed when I consume caffeine. I find myself frantically running from one task to the other and worrying over the slightest of problems in my day. I found it harder to relax in my meditations and take my mind away from the day’s tasks.
It took me some time to realize that my coffee consumption was one of the main culprits. Since caffeine affects the autonomic nervous system, it leads to side effects like a racing heart, panicky feelings, and increased anxiousness if you are sensitive to the substance.
After getting off coffee, I can focus on things for a much longer period of time while still being relaxed.
Several studies have shown that coffee can activate contractions in your colon and intestinal muscles. These contractions push the contents down toward the rectum, which is the final section of your digestive tract.
Quitting caffeine leads to better bowel movements and fewer trips to the washroom!
Reduced Stress and Appetite
Caffeine can make you feel full and you might think that a lack of it will make you want to eat more. That is only one side of the story. There is a subtle relationship between caffeine and our appetites.
Caffeine raises cortisol (the “stress hormone”), and cortisol increases appetite. This study found that when faced with a stressful situation, the stress response in coffee drinkers was higher than in others.
Caffeine changes our brains in such a way that even little stresses appear to be huge threats. When you are stressed, you may want to eat more to reduce that stress.
Whenever I have a cup of coffee after lunch, I feel hungry much sooner than if I did not have one. It made me reach out for cookies and other snacks that I know I should not be having.
Now, having quit caffeine, I find myself satiated all through the afternoon until it is time to have dinner.
What about Energy?
If you are a regular coffee drinker, I can understand how your energy levels must be dependent on your caffeine intake. However, we do not have to live like this. There are many ways we can replenish our energy without caffeine:
- EXERCISE – Exercise releases norepinephrine that makes you feel awake and endorphins to improve your mood. Even a simple walk or a few jumping jacks are a great way to energize.
- DRINK MORE WATER – Fatigue, brain fog, and confusion are common signs of dehydration. Drinking more water keeps you feeling refreshed and energized.
- TAKE A POWER NAP – A quick 20-minute nap after lunch gives me enough energy to continue for the rest of the day. Moreover, it does not come with a crash like coffee. Be wary of napping longer than that since it may disrupt your sleep at night.
- MAINTAIN A PROPER DIET – Avoid processed foods, sugar, and excess carbs. Fill your diet with proteins, leafy greens, and fruits to feel lighter and energized throughout the day.
- GET SOME SUN – Spending time in the sun vitalizes your cells, helps your body produce vitamin D, and promotes better sleep at night by regulating your circadian rhythm.
- FULL BREATH EXERCISES – Since most people do not breathe deeply enough, sufficient oxygen does not reach the brain. The result? Fatigue and lethargy. Just a few seconds of simple, deep, belly breathing can leave you feeling rejuvenated.
Paramhansa Yogananda, my spiritual teacher and guru, has given us a wonderful set of exercises to recharge the body with cosmic energy and electrify the cells. He called them the “Energisation Exercises.” Practicing these exercises has been a way to generate much more energy without the accompanying crash that comes from caffeine.
If you are still reading, I think you resonate with what I said on some level! My goal was to make you aware of the side effects of something you may consume every day — effects we overlook simply because caffeine is so prevalent.
If you feel “addicted” to caffeine and cannot go without it, maybe it is worthwhile to try quitting or cutting back. You will, at least, strengthen your willpower!
Some are able to drink coffee without being affected by it while others could not be happier about their choice to quit. At the end of the day, it is a personal decision you have to make for yourself. I am certainly no one to put forth an absolute dictum. I can only share what my experience has taught me.
The key is to listen to our own bodies, introspect, and make a decision that helps us live more joyful and mindful lives.